On 31 October, 1 and 2 November, the Compagnie Marie Chouinard presented Henri Michaux: Mouvements and Gymnopedies at the Théâtre Maisonneuve. Despite their differences, both works potently express what is fundamentally primal, visceral, and elemental in the human condition.

Gymnopedies © Nicholas Ruel
Gymnopedies
© Nicholas Ruel

The first work was inspired by a book of India ink drawings and poetic musings that the Belgian-French writer Henri Michaux (1899-1984) created, possibly while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. The book had been on Chouinard’s shelf for years before she realized that it was a sort of choreographic storyboard. Chouinard’s choreography brings each bizarre splotch to life, translating static shape into vibrant movement and affect.

The work opens with blank pages projected onto the back wall of the stage. A solitary dancer, dressed head to toe in black, slowly walks next to the empty page, her shadow close beside her. She gets to the middle of the open “book,” and walks toward the audience. The first of Michaux’s bizarre sketches appears on the screen, and the dancer incarnates the image, literally bringing it to life.

After several images are interpreted by the solo dancer, the soundtrack begins: extremely loud, energetic, pulsating industrial noise (composed by Chouinard’s longtime collaborator Louis Dufort) complements the frenetic energy of the dancers, who are now taking turns interpreting the drawings that appear on the screen. As the images become more complex, the dancers work together to give them form: two, three, sometimes even all eleven at once create undulating, trembling, convulsing imaginary beings.

Many of the figures are animal-like, and the dancers often make animalistic sounds, wild and feral: I felt at times like I was visiting an apocalyptic madhouse inhabited by the entire animal kingdom gone crazy.

In the middle of the performance one of the dancers grabs a microphone and rolls under the floor covering, reciting in delirious French the strange and hallucinatory poem Michaux interjects in the middle of his work. And again at the end, we hear his afterword, during which he ponders the mystery of the signs he has created, and speaks of being “possessed by movement.” During this incantation, strobe lights flash in a corner of the stage, and the dancers, now dressed in nude colours, jump and flash through the throbbing light, resembling the neurons flashing in Michaux’s drug-addled brain.

Equally captivating, Gymnopedies was sensuous and languorous. Based on the well-known piano works by French composer Eric Satie (1866-1925) the piece explores the implied and explicit sensuality and sexuality of the dancing couple.

The prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – a story about intense and passionate love and longing – opens the work and occasionally returns later in the piece. But most of the soundtrack is provided by the dancers themselves, who play Satie’s austere music on a grand piano that sits onstage. The dancers, none of whom had any musical training, worked daily with a piano teacher to accomplish this impressive feat. The piano playing itself becomes part of the work – the dancers caress and stroke the piano, writhing and interacting with it in much the same way that the couples interact with each other. This relationship is made even more explicit during the bizarre and hilarious epilogue, during which one of the female dancers has her way with an electronic keyboard, creating a different type of music altogether.

Gymnopedies is all about sex; sensuous, childlike, innocent, playful, rough, and passionate sex. At times we feel like we are voyeurs in the Garden of Eden; naïve naked couples emerge from canvas covers and disappear into a grotto-like space at the back of the stage. At other times we are spies in a Parisian boudoir, as a male dancer leads a lithe blindfolded female en pointe through various erotic poses. Sometimes we are at a circus, where clowns with red noses look on in mock surprise at the goings-on around them, then disappear for some raunchy under-the-sheets action themselves. At one point all of the activity stops, and the dancers look out at us, exposing the implicit voyeurism of dance, the fine line between art and pornography.

Only Chouinard could pull off the end of the piece: the curtain falls, the house lights go on, everyone puts on their coats and prepares to leave... The curtain rises, and a bizarre sequence of events ensues. A clown shuffles onto the stage, ecstatic. A dancer appears with a boom box, broadcasting Satie’s piece. Two or three dancers appear and bow, and the clown tells us to clap, but we know the show isn’t over yet. Two scantily clad women enjoy some champagne and a pipe, squirming sensuously until one of them answers her cell phone and abandons the other to chase a male lover through the audience, where they make out next to unsuspecting spectators. If during the work itself, we were spies in various houses of love, now we are looking at the interior of someone’s mind, at various erotic scenarios that take root in our brains, sometimes to be acted upon, and sometimes to lie dormant, feeding our fantasies.

In both of these works Chouinard has achieved what only the best artists can: she travels to the very depths of our collective psyche, and brings what she finds there out into the open for all to see.